COMMENT: An ocean apart

But the tutor and pupil are an ocean apart – as geographically, they are – in their dispensation of justice. American laws and courts appear more sensitive to injustice, giving victims more latitude for redress.

In RP

The following narratives are only two of the many cases of injustices crying for redress that have happened in our country:

On February 10, 2006, communist rebels attacked a military detachment in Mankayan, Benguet. Four days later, nine young backpackers or hikers, 18 to 21 years old, were arrested, detained and tried for homicide and arson, their alleged involvement in the attack.

After 10 months, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported last December 21 that the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Theirs was a case of wrong arrest and prosecution. They were not awarded compensatory damages for their 10-month unjust detention. They did not sue. Could they?

On October 4, 2006, 28 mothers delivered at Rizal Medical Center in Pasig City. (PDI, Oct. 15, 2006). Seven of them lost their babies to neonatal sepsis, a bacterial infection occurring, usually within two to eight days after birth.

Officials attributed the unsanitary conditions at the hospital to Typhoon “Milenyo” that cut water lines and electricity. Can that be an excuse? According to the report, RMC is known for past neonatal sepsis deaths.

RMC officials apologized to the mothers maintaining that “they did everything possible to protect the children”. That was pro forma excuse. One mother wanted to seek justice. Will she succeed under our existing laws and legal practices?

In the US

Here are three cases reported in The Oregonian. There are more such cases in the entire USA.

On April 21, 2005, four Portland police officers used excessive physical force to arrest Chaz W. Miller, 18, whom they had mistaken for a suspect in a domestic assault. Even after it had been positively established that Miller was not the suspect sought, he was still taken into custody and accused of trumped up charges.

Miller filed in a federal court an excessive force complaint. In February 2006, Portland settled the federal civil right case, paying Miller $32,683; in April, it paid out $59,485 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

The Oregonian published the Miller case in October 27, 2006 to highlight the report on one of the four officers – Christopher Humpreys, who figured principally in a recent use of excessive physical force which resulted in the death of the victim, James Chasse, Jr.

In May 2004, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrested and detained Portland lawyer Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim convert, as a material witness to the Madrid (Spain) bombings earlier that year. His fingerprints had been found to match those “found in a bag of detonators” recovered in Madrid. (The Oregonia, Nov. 30, 2006).

After two weeks in detention, he was released when Spanish investigators were able to link the fingerprints to an Algerian national. The special agent of the FBI in Oregon publicly apologized to Mayfield when the FBI acknowledged the fingerprint error.

Mayfield sued and the US government settled for $2 million — $1.9 million to him and $100,000 to his wife and three children. He is also challenging before the US Supreme Court the constitutionality of the Patriot Act under which he was arrested and detained and the FBI – he was positive of it – entered his house and bugged it.

Mayola Williams sued Philip Morris for the death of her husband – a Portland public schools janitor – due to smoking as many as three packs of Marlboros a day and believing “decades of tobacco industry assurances that smoking didn’t pose a health threat”.

The grand jury awarded Williams $821,485 in compensatory damages and to the state $79.5 million to punish the tobacco company for misleading consumers. In Oregon, 60 percent of the punitive damages goes to a state crime victims’ compensation fund.

The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the awards. In 2003, the US Supreme Court returned the case to the Oregon courts because the punitive damages exceeded 9 x the compensatory damages – the federal limit. The Oregon CA refused to reduce the $79.5 million and on February 2, 2006 the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed the decision.

On October 31, 2006, the US Supreme Court heard again oral arguments on the punitive damages. Said the report: “The Supreme Court, which will release its decision next year, indicated it might return the case back to Oregon for clarification.” Hot potato.

Clear

When police officers in the US abuse and are sued – they often are – it is the government that settles and compensates the victims. In the Philippines, if victims of police abuses sue – it rarely happens – the erring policemen are prosecuted criminally. Even if convicted – difficult for the victim to do – the victims are not awarded compensatory damages.

In the US, many hospitals sued for the death of patients and some hospitals have paid hundreds of million of dollars in compensatory damages. While the cap or limit for one claim is $250,000, there were reports of claims running to millions of dollars.

In the Philippines, it’s rare that hospitals are sued. If there’s any such suits, it’s the doctors and other hospital personnel involved who are sued. Only the rich and well known people have been reported to have filed such suits.

Honestly, I don’t know the answers. I can only ask. Do we have laws making the government liable for the abuses of the police and the military personnel and the acts and negligence of its civilian officials in the service areas injurious to the people?

Do we have laws making private hospitals primarily liable for the errors of their personnel? Or making manufacturers, producers and service dispensers liable for the harm their products and service may do on their customers and consumers?

The presence of such laws in the US and their absence in RP could be the difference in the dispensation of justice between the two countries. Is it? The difference seems clear.

("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.")

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